Curing Our Ailing Infrastructure
Adequate and reliable water lines, sewer systems, stormwater systems, roads, bridges, transit systems, airports, locks and dams, industrial sites and buildings, and many other physical systems are critical if our citizens and businesses are to have clean water to drink, the ability to travel to work, the ability to ship and receive products, etc. Yet many of those systems in southwestern Pennsylvania are either wearing out or unable to deal with demands they were not designed for.
You can see the effects of this in the news on a regular basis. People drowning when storm runoff floods streets. Bridges collapsing or being closed. Tainted drinking water supplies and unhealthy levels of sewage in the rivers. Barges backing up in the rivers due to broken locks.
We’re not alone in having problems with aging and under-capacity infrastructure. It’s a national problem, and it’s particularly bad in older regions in the Northeast and Midwest like ours.
But in many ways, our problems are worse than those in almost any other region. For example, we have one of the worst problems of sewage-contaminated water in the nation due to urban sewage overflows and failing rural septic tanks. And in transportation, not only do we have more bridges than almost any region of the country, over one-fourth of our bridges are structurally deficient, more than double the national average.
But despite the severity and importance of these problems, we’re not aggressively modernizing our infrastructure. At best we’re doing a portion of the needed preventive maintenance and replacing things only after they collapse completely.
Every year that we avoid more fundamental solutions, the problem will just get worse. Thanks to years of deferring the problems, we now have a multi-billion dollar backlog of important projects.
Many people have looked to the federal government to solve our infrastructure problems. Earlier this year, a bipartisan national group called “Building America’s Future” issued yet another call for increased federal investment in infrastructure. But with a $1.2 trillion deficit and challenges paying its $14 trillion in existing debt, it’s unlikely that the federal government will be able to solve the problem. Moreover, any help they provide will not pay 100% of the costs of a project; there will be requirements for local matching funds. Where will that money come from?
Others have looked to state government to solve infrastructure problems, either directly or in partnership with the federal government, but it has historically been unable to keep up with the need. For example, the latest in a long string of state transportation financing commissions completed its work in August, but even if state legislators actually implement its recommendations, it will only address a part of our infrastructure problems, and any new state money will likely require local governments to invest money, too.
The fact is that no federal or state program will provide enough resources to address all of the important infrastructure problems our region faces. So if we want to ensure our highest priority needs are met, our region will need effective ways to choose which projects will be funded and to pay for the costs that aren’t covered by federal and state sources.
Unfortunately, the Pittsburgh region is more poorly organized to do that than most major regions. The uniquely fragmented local government structure in southwestern Pennsylvania means that we have, in effect, over 500 separate highway departments and nearly 1,000 agencies involved with water and sewer management, none of which has the resources to make investments of the magnitude needed to address our multi-billion dollar infrastructure backlog.
Moreover, the failure of any one community to maintain its infrastructure isn’t just a problem for the residents of that community, it’s a regional problem. For example, any contamination in the water you drink likely came from a problem in a different community somewhere upriver. And since 87% of the region’s residents work at a job located in a different municipality than where they live, you’re likely very dependent on how well multiple municipalities maintain their roads and bridges.
Clearly, if we’re going to address our serious, regional infrastructure problems, we need regional financing and priority-setting mechanisms. Although we have a 10-county agency called the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission or SPC that’s charged with addressing at least some infrastructure issues, it has almost no actual money to allocate. It develops regional transportation plans and prioritizes highway, bridge, and transit projects, but PennDOT still makes the final decision about which projects will be funded, not SPC. Similarly, although a variety of local agencies plan, organize, and prioritize large economic development projects, the decisions about which projects get state funding are made by the state, and those decisions do not always match local priorities.
Why should we raise state taxes and fees to improve infrastructure, only to have to fight to get our fair share back? A better approach would be for the state to delegate the decision-making authority for at least a portion of state funding to those regions that have an effective regional infrastructure planning, decision-making, and financing mechanism in place. The burden will then be on us to create such a regional mechanism in Southwestern Pennsylvania.
If our region is going to be economically competitive in the future, we need to make infrastructure investment and improvement a central part of our economic development strategies, and we need to do it on a multi-county, regional basis. Although issues like whether to save Mellon Arena or build a new museum tend to generate far more passion and excitement than fixing sewers and bridges, a region with recreational amenities but no clean water or functional highways will not be able to keep its jobs or residents for long.
(A version of this post appeared as the "Regional Insights" column in the Sunday, October 2, 2011 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.)